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Hygienic quality of dehydrated aromatic herbs marketed in Southern Portugal

1 Universidade do Algarve, Instituto Superior de Engenharia, Campus da Penha, 8005-139 Faro, Portugal
2 Universidade do Algarve, Centre for Mediterranean Bioresources and Food (MeditBio), Campus de Gambelas, 8005-139 Faro, Portugal

Dehydrated aromatic herbs are highly valued ingredients, widely used at home level and by food processing industry, frequently added to a great number of recipes in the Mediterranean countries. Despite being considered low-moisture products and classified as GRAS, during pre and post-harvesting stages of production they are susceptible of microbial contamination. In Europe an increasing number of food recalls and disease outbreaks associated with dehydrated herbs have been reported in recent years. In this study the microbial quality of 99 samples of aromatic herbs (bay leaves, basil, coriander, oregano, parsley, Provence herbs, rosemary and thyme) collected from retails shops in the region of Algarve (Southern Portugal) was assessed. All the samples were tested by conventional methods and were assayed for the total count of aerobic mesophilic microorganisms, Salmonella spp., Escherichia coli, coagulase-positive staphylococci and filamentous fungi. Almost 50 % of the herbs did not exceed the aerobic mesophilic level of 104 CFU/g. The fungi count regarded as unacceptable (106 CFU/g) was not found in any of the tested herbs, while 84 % of the samples ranged from ≤102 to 104 CFU/g. No sample was positive for the presence of Salmonella spp., Escherichia coli and staphylococci. The results are in compliance with the European Commission criteria although they point out to the permanent need of surveillance on the good standards of handling/cooking practices as well as the importance of avoiding contamination at production, retailing and distribution. The microbiological hazards associated with the pathogenic and toxigenic microbiota of dried herbs remain as a relevant public health issue, due to the fact that they are added to foods not submitted to any following lethal procedure. Control measures should be adopted in order to ensure that all phases of their supply chain respect the food safety standards.
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